Cast in at the deep end more as a bit of an afterthought, up-and-coming stayer Hard Too Think went on to upstage the favourites in the $400,000 Group 1 Singapore Derby (1800m) on Sunday for a version which might not be etched in the annals of the prestigious race as the most memorable, but which still bore the hallmark of excellence and excitement.

Regarded pre-race by most pundits as a dark horse who could maybe steal a place, the All Too Hard four-year-old coursed out three wide for jockey Marc Lerner in a small but compact eight-horse field, but shaped up as one of the biggest threats as he rolled into a striking position at the point of the turn.

The other ominous mover and shaker was Big Hearted (Vlad Duric), the second pick after Group 2 Stewards’ Cup winner Mr Malek (A’Isisuhairi Kasim), who, to his camp’s dismay, was not quickening like he usually does at the 300m, probably sapped out by a torrid run three wide without cover upfront after he just couldn’t tuck in.

Following Top Knight’s heroics last year, the champion triumvirate of trainer Michael Clements, owner Falcon Racing Stable and jockey Duric looked to have one hand firmly clenched around a second Derby trophy when Big Hearted surged from last with his customary finishing burst, but they had underestimated Hard Too Think’s boundless will to win.

Superbly driven to the wire by Lerner in his trademark continental riding style, Hard Too Think ($40) held his ground tenaciously, and was in fact never headed. He eventually pulled clear to go and salute by one length, for a most remarkable effort in defying a gulf of 13 ½ kilos between the two horses while shouldering the same handicap of 57kgs.

Savvy Command (Shafiq Rizuan) ran third another three parts of a length away. The winning time was a moderate 1min 48.27secs for the 1800m on the Long Course, not surprisingly given the way race-leader Senor Don (Wong Chin Chuen) stacked them up in front.

Like for any Group 1 triumph, it’s the ultimate reward to months of hard work, and none is more deserving than winning trainer Stephen Gray, but the New Zealander, who is well known for wearing his heart on his sleeve, and his impassioned investment of himself into Singapore racing since his relocation 21 years ago, was clearly overcome with a cocktail of feelings as he walked down to the victory dais amidst an eerily quiet Grandstand.

Granted, last year’s renewal – exceptionally staged in September, hence, oddly for five-year-olds – was also behind closed doors during the Circuit Breaker, but it’s not just the Grandstand afflicted with empty seats this year.

The race itself, already cut back in numbers when leading hope Rocket Star was scratched on the eve because of a respiratory disease, presented the smallest Singapore Derby field ever to face the starter from time immemorial.

No doubt, running a lower-rated horse at level weights in a sparse field gives anybody a fairer chance of claiming some big scalps, but Gray, as much as he was proud to annex a second Singapore Derby, said he would be lying if he didn’t feel the contrasting aura between Lim’s Prestige’s win circa 2007 and Sunday’s.

“It feels surreal. I’m actually quite sad,” said Gray as he choked back tears.

“When I looked up to the stands as I headed down, I shook my head and had a bit of a tear. More people should get vaccinated, and hopefully, the crowds can then be allowed back in.

“It’s a different emotion this year even if I have won my second Derby – I’m emotional and tired at the same time.

“Since COVID-19 came back, it’s been a bit tough. It’s so hard, our business is depleted, not just for me, but all the trainers have been hit hard.

“It’s been hard on our minds. We try to hang in there, every trainer wants to win it, but it just so happened I’m the one who won it.

“When I won the race for the Lim’s Stable in 2007, it was a game changer, it changed my life, but today I’ve won the second one at a time when our livelihood is at stake.

“Owners have no confidence in the industry. They won’t invest until prizemoney is back up, they won’t buy new horses if they don’t know what the future holds.

“We need to see more direction and leadership from the Club, we need a good shake-up, or it can only get worse. I’m not speaking just for me but for every trainer and all the stakeholders.

“It wasn’t the strongest Derby, it’s the smallest Derby field I’ve seen, and with prizemoney that used to be $1.15 million not too long ago, but I’ll still go down in history as the winner of two Derbies.

“It’s now $400,000 which is still good money, so we’re thankful for that as racing could have closed down. This is not about the money, but it’s about the passion.

“We beat the other horse (Big Hearted) who is a very good horse, and is ridden by a top jockey and is trained by a top trainer.

“I’m still over the moon for the first-time owners. It’s sad they can’t be here to celebrate a Derby winner, but at the end of the day, there are still a lot of people happy at home.

“A big shout-out to my staff, or what’s left of them, like Lisa O’Shea, Wiki, and our Malaysian track riders who have stayed here instead of going home during the lockdown. Singapore racing wouldn’t have operated without them.

“I’m also very proud of my wife Bridget, who knows all the rules and regulations and runs the stable behind the scenes, and of course, my children, James and Katie, who were both born in Singapore.

“James is serving his National Service, and is a captain. He is coming out of quarantine in New Zealand, as he has gone home to see his grandparents and family before he starts his studies in either Melbourne or Wellington. Katie is studying in Melbourne and works two jobs.

“I’d also like to say my biggest thanks to Craig Geehman for helping out in putting these partnerships together and managing them.

“I bought Hard Too Think as a yearling and some people took in shares to form a public syndication, but he runs in mum’s and dad’s private colours (blue and yellow checks) – it’s a big honour to win a Singapore Derby in these colours.”

Lerner, whose time in Singapore is much shorter (he began riding at Kranji in 2018) than Gray’s, was at his second Group 1 success after Makanani claimed the Raffles Cup in 2019, but in these challenging times overwhelming all and sundry, the French jockey was also feeling a stronger connection to his family of Argentinian origin this time round.

So strong the normally well-contained jockey couldn’t this time resist raising his arm in a celebratory gesture which later lightened up his pocket of $500 in the Stewards’ room. It was the only sour note, but in the overall scheme of things, it was eclipsed by that second Group 1 hurrah that was for la familia (family in Spanish).

“With Makanani, I wasn’t sure I won on the line, but this time, I knew, and once I went past the winning post, my first thoughts went to my family, whom I haven’t seen for 1 ½ years,” said Lerner, who forged his riding career mostly in Germany even if the Lerner family is a well-known racing name (both father Carlos, who was born in Argentina before migrating to France, and brother Yann, a former top jockey, are trainers) back in France.

“This win is for them. I know they watched the race ‘live’ from France, it was a great feeling to know they saw me win the Derby here in Singapore.

“When I turned on my phone after I left the jockeys’ room, I could see their messages and I could picture their smiles, it’s hard to explain the joy I felt this time.

“My dad actually won the French Derby (Prix du Jockey Club) with Anabaa Blue in 2001. So I know he’s very proud his son has won one in Singapore.

“A big thank you to Stephen as well. He gives me more rides these days, he never put any pressure on me about this race, and it gives me a big thrill to win this Derby for him.

“I don’t know how to explain this. Even if there is no public at the races, I was super happy I won this race for Steve and myself.

“I only got to know him better in recent months and he’s a trainer I’ve learned to really appreciate, he’s a really cool guy.

“He gave me carte blanche for the way to ride the horse today. Everything just fell into place.”

While the task to lower the big guns’ colours looked daunting on paper, Lerner said he had been building up a quiet confidence going into the race.

“I really adore this horse. I’ve been riding him for a while now, and I was really upset when I couldn’t make the weight (53kgs) at his last start when Harry (A’Isisuhairi) rode him and he finished second,” he said.

“He’s always finished either 1-2 for me (two wins and one second in three starts before the Derby). He’s a very easy horse to ride, very tractable, he does whatever you ask of him and he has the temperament of classy horses.

“We put the blinkers on to sharpen him up. His trial (on July 14, Lerner’s French National Day) with them on was super good, and when Stephen asked me if he should wear them, I said this is a big race, so why not?

“He was in great form, but it was hard to be too confident against horses like Mr Malek, who won the Stewards’ Cup in style and Big Hearted, a Singapore Gold Cup winner, when he’s only won in Class 4, but he was a horse who was fresher as he hadn’t raced as often.

“I wanted to ride him positive, but as the pace was quite slow, I was happy to sit behind Mr Malek who was the horse to beat. He travelled three wide, but I was never worried as I knew he could stay on.

“Mr Malek towed us into the race till the 400m, and when I went past him, I knew he could win that race. He just had to outstay them to win and he can stay.

“We had a perfect trip throughout.”

Gray was also rapt for Lerner, who looks all set to stay for the joyride towards the time-honoured race that had always overshadowed the Derby as a target race, his Holy Grail, the $1 million Group 1 Singapore Gold Cup (2000m), a race Gray won once with Bahana in 2016 when it was then run over 2200m – even if it still depends what weight he gets when the handicap showpiece comes up on November 14.

“I’m so thankful to Marc. He was also very emotional and hats off to him,” said Gray.

“He came from far away, and has spent a long time away from his family. He has also struggled like every jockey, to get owners and trainers to support him, but he has hung in there. I hope there is a future for him here.

“The horse worked with blinkers on, and he improved a length as it helped focus him up and fight them off. I spoke with Marc and we agreed to save them for a special day and today was a special day.

“We discussed before the race and I told Marc to stay out wide and see what happens. The leader got back and he got cover.

“It was a brilliant ride by Marc. He is a shy man, but he’s a very nice person and I’m really excited for him and his association with Hard Too Think.

“We have a young horse with a good future. I would have no problem taking him to Australia, but we had to have a go in the Derby today.

“I hope he doesn’t get too many points as the Gold Cup remains his main goal.”

Though lightly-raced, Hard Too Think has already established an impressive record of four wins and three seconds from 11 starts for prizemoney that has in one fell swoop almost trebled to around $340,000 for the Stephen Gray Racing Stable with the Derby victory.